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Meet some of the key players steering the EBU's flagship show

20 May 2017 at 08:00 CEST
Satellite dish at the EBU's headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. EBU
The Eurovision Song Contest is the flagship programme of the European Broadcasting Union. On a day-to-day basis, the contest is managed by Executive Supervisor Jon Ola Sand and his team. But they are not alone! We caught up with two others who are also deeply involved in the organisation of the contest behind the scenes, to find out more about the role they play throughout the year.

Just before the Grand Final of the 2017 Eurovision Song Contest, spoke with EBU Media Director Jean Phillip De Tender and the Chairman of the Reference Group of the Eurovision Song Contest, Dr. Frank-Dieter Freiling.

The EBU: A bit of background

The European Broadcasting Union (EBU) was founded in 1950 and is the world’s leading alliance of public service media incorporating 73 members from across 56 countries in Europe, and an additional 34 Associates in Asia, Africa and the Americas. Almost 2,000 television and radio channels are operated by its members alongside numerous online platforms. Together they reach audience of more than one billion people all over the world, broadcasting in more than 120 languages. 

Since 1956, the Eurovision Song Contest has been organised under the supervision of the EBU which supports and supervises the work of the Host Broadcaster. The EBU is the central point of contact of all Participating Broadcasters and deals with all matters related to the Eurovision brand, including international marketing activities, rights management, voting, communications and online activities. 

De Tender: "They all have different needs"

Before he joined the EBU, Jean Phillip De Tender had worked for VRT, the Flemish public broadcaster in Belgium for more than 25 years. He was also the Chairman of the EBU's Television Committee since 2013. Since 2015 he is the EBU's Media Director, heading the department in which the Eurovision Song Contest's permanent team resides and as such, he is the Executive Supervisor's boss.

What are the challenges of his current role? "The most difficult thing is that it is a very big organisation with more than 70 members, all of which have different needs," he explained. "Some even struggle to be financed. Being relevant for all of them is a challenge as is delivering a service or consultancy that suits their needs, it is different for each of them."

The Media Director explained that the Eurovision Song Contest itself is just a small part of a vast range of services that the European Broadcasting Union provides to its members. "One of the big services delivered to our members is the news exchange," he said. Jean Phillip explained that the news exchange supports the role of Public Service Media by facilitating members with access to information, content and footage.

Jean Phillip also highlighted the wide range of cultural projects that the EBU produces, including other Eurovision events such as the Junior Eurovision Song Contest, Eurovision Young Musicians, Eurovision Young Dancers and coming soon, Eurovision Choir of the Year.  

Jean Phillip considers the Eurovision Song Contest to be valuable for cultural exchange. "A contest organised in Ukraine is different to when it's been in Sweden. Understanding these differences and nurturing this cultural diversity is so enriching; being able to be a part of it is just fantastic," he said. "I joined the EBU as a media expert and have to stretch my skills in areas such as diplomacy for example, it's been very rewarding," Jean Phillip added. 

Freiling: "It's important to have someone impartial on board"

Since 1998, the Eurovision Song Contest Reference Group has been the executive expert committee on behalf of the contest's Participating Broadcasters. The purpose of the contest's governing body is to oversee and guide its organisation and evolution. The main tasks of the group include approving format developments, securing financing, modernising the brand, raising awareness and overseeing the yearly preparations by the Host Broadcaster.

The Reference Group is composed of a Chairman, three members elected by the Heads of Delegation, the Executive Producers from the previous two Host Broadcasters, as well as the Executive Producer of the current Host Broadcaster. The Executive Supervisor of the Eurovision Song Contest, who is the only member of the group employed by the EBU, is also a member of the Reference Group, bringing the total number of members to eight. 

The chairman is elected by the EBU TV Committee on behalf of the EBU members, their term, as well as the whole Reference Group cycle  lasts two years and re-election is possible. The first Chairman of the Reference Group was Dutchman Ruurd Bierman, who served from 1998 until 2010. The group's current Chairman is Dr Frank-Dieter Freiling and we met with him to find out more about his work. 

Dr Frank-Dieter Freiling has been in the field of the media since 1987 when he started as a freelance journalist for the prestigious Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Over the past few years he has worked in international relations for the German broadcaster ZDF, and has been the Director of International Affairs since 2000. ZDF is not a participating broadcaster in the Eurovision Song Contest in Germany, while ARD/NDR is, but that was considered as an advantage to have a neutral Chairman when electing him in 2009.

"It's important to have someone impartial on board," explained Frank-Dieter. "The Reference Group sometimes take tough decisions, such as recommending or deciding upon sanctions following any breaches of the rules so it's important that there are no conflicts of interest," he added.

Frank-Dieter gave an insight into the work of the Reference Group, explaining that the group meets several times a year and provides guidance to the Host Broadcaster. "We take decisions on a range of things from changes to the format of the show to deciding and agreeing on key milestones in relation to the organisation of the competition."

One of the most enjoyable aspects of his role is the international element of the work. As he explains: "Working on an international co-production with partners from around the world brings lots of wonderful opportunities for cultural exhange but with that there are many challenges." 

What challenges are there? "What I just said," he adds laughing. "The size of the event and the multiple stakeholders involved can be a challenging as is the time aspect, one year is not a lot of time to produce an event in a scale such as this, which is why you need a Reference Group, to take important decisions in the best interests of the Song Contest."

You can watch a video about the work of the Reference Group, filmed in November 2016, below:

Speaking of the Reference Group — their next meeting will take place in Geneva in June.

We thank Jean Phillip De Tender and Dr Frank-Dieter Freiling for taking the time to speak to